* Prices may differ from that shown
There's no shame in admitting that I was drawn to the Wallander series after watching Kenneth Branagh's performance in the BBC's excellent adaptations. I found a translation of The Man Who Smiled in my new flat, left behind by a previous tennant, and devoured it over the course of several commutes last week.
Kurt Wallander is a wreck of a man, suffering from depression, alcoholism, a mid-life crisis and post-traumatic stress (following the events, I presume, of a previous novel). On long-term sick leave from Ystad's police force, Wallander's only solace is in walking through foggy dunes on the Swedish coast. Eventually, his help is sought by an old friend.
Wallander rejects his friend's plea to investigate the death of his lawyer father, and decides to resign from the police. Then, the morning of his resignation, he discovers the son has been shot, and plunges himself straight back into a police investigation that takes in staged murders, international big business and the most repellent crimes imaginable. But is it any good?
Wallander's investigation pays homage to the police procedural genre. Every team briefing and every conference with the prosecutor Per Akeson is related over the course of just over 400 pages. There are no stunning deductive leaps of logic as with a Sherlock Holmes story, although Wallander is prone to flashes of insight that are amusingly accurate. This is detective work done the hard way - the discovery of a chair leg in a muddy field may begin a train of events in the investigation, but it's the team trawling through the financial records of a local entrepreneur that really bring results.
To an extent then, The Man Who Smiled is an uneasy marriage between the fantasy police adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the deadly po-faced school of realism. Whenever events threaten to become dull, Wallander's constant commentary (on the nature of police work, on the course of his own life, on childhood memories) enlivens them with a kind of gloomy charm.
Interest is also added by the characters in Wallander's team. Ann-Britt Hoglund is introduced, a brilliant young female detective fresh from the academy, making the older men uneasy in their positions. Wallander's direct competitor Hanson is particularly rattled, which generates a point of drama which seems minor at the time, but really builds the suspense for the novel's climax.
Mankell has produced a masterfully compelling novel. The actual investigation is incredibly boring - mostly because you know from the start that Alfred Harderberg, the Man Who Smiled, the mysterious owner of Farnholm Castle, is behind everything (by this I mean from the opening pages of the novel, not from the adaptation). The reader's interest lies partly in seeing how Wallander and his team uncovers Alfred Harderberg's secrets, but more in seeing whether Wallander can make it to the end of the novel with his sanity intact. The team's internal tensions regarding his return to work and his own demons threaten to undermine Kurt throughout, adding a real emotional heart to the book.
Perhaps realising that the investigation itself can be accurate or interesting but not both, Mankell paces the book superbly, providing a new murder or explosion every time things look like flagging.
But all of this careful plausibility is suddenly thrown out of the window at the last minute, when Wallander decides to go on a one-man rampage in the Swedish countryside to bring down his man. The Man Who Smiled veers instantly into Hot Fuzz territory, which is an unfortunate but inevitable analogy, with shades of James Bond, complete with a suave mastervillain.
It's a novel of two halves, then. Masterful plotting, intricate policework, haunting descriptions of Sweden's spectacular landscapes, intense characterisation... and then it all kicks off into explosions and action. The switch is sudden, and almost certainly this is intentional, and it provides a surprisingly fitting payoff to all the crafted groundwork that has gone before.
This also holds the distinction of being the only crime novel I've ever read twice. The translation I picked up was L'Homme Qui Souriait, the French version, before re-reading in English to make sure it was as awesome as I'd thought - and also to check whether the references to the notoriously litigious family of Robert Maxwell were still in there...
Kenneth Branagh and David Warner have cemented an image of Wallander junior and senior in the minds of many people in the UK, but the original novels are well worth checking out as well. Highly recommended, even if you have seen the adaptation.
Although this book has only just been published in English, the original, the fourth in the Wallander series, was published back in 1994. For some reason, the books following this were translated and published in English first. Knowing that Mankell has now come to the end of his Wallander series, having handed over to his rookie daughter Linda, it was an unexpected pleasure to have another chance to enjoy Kurt Wallander at the height of his career.
There seems to have been a spate of excellent crime fiction novels written by Scandinavian authors over the past few years, including Arnaldur Indridason, Ake Edwardson and Karin Fossum. Henning Mankell was the first Scandinavian author that was brought to my attention and to my mind, is still the best. Mankell was born in Sweden, where his novels are based, but has spent some time overseas in Mozambique. This is reflected in his novels, many of which have a foreign element to them.
The novel opens with a depressed Wallander, unable to work because of having shot a man in the line of duty. He spends some time away from Ystad, where an old friend, Sten Torstenson, finds him and tries to persuade him to get involved in his father's suspicious death. Wallander is not persuaded and returns to Ystad determined to hand in his resignation once and for all.
However, on his return, he discovers that Sten was shot dead a few weeks after his father, both of whom were local solicitors. Feeling guilty that Sten had asked him for his help, Wallander decides to go back to work to persuade his colleagues that the deaths were both suspicious. During his investigation, he narrowly avoids being blown up, which makes him all the more determined to find out who is responsible for Sten and Gustav's murders.
The main characters
Kurt Wallander is one of my favourite fictional detectives. He could almost certainly be classed as suffering from depression and without a doubt has his faults, yet somehow he is so sweet and likeable with it that it is hard not to fall for his charm - something that I have never yet done with Rebus, Dagleish, or Alan Banks. He is a loner and struggles in his relationship with others, especially his part-time girlfriend, Baiba from Riga, his daughter and his colleagues. Yet he is tremendously loyal and would fight to the death to protect his family and colleagues - a fact that often leads him into trouble because he doesn't want to involve others in potentially dangerous situations and so charges in alone. He has perhaps just one real friend - Sten Widen - who is an alcoholic, but relations with him have dwindled over the years, although he does play quite an important role in this book.
His relationship with his team of colleagues develops well during this book. To the core team of Martinsson, Svedberg and Hansson, a new colleague is added, Ann-Britt Hoglund. Ann-Britt is a new recruit, but Wallander sees promise in her and takes her under his wing. Their relationship blossoms throughout this book and the following books in the series, yet it never becomes sexual, something that would have been very easy for the author to do and for which I respect him.
I have just one criticism of this book. It starts and finished strongly, but the last third of the book plods along quite slowly, with very little action. Once I'd got through it though, the finale was a very satisfying end to a good book and the first two thirds of the book were brilliant. Apart from the story and good characterisation, Mankell has a gift for bringing Sweden alive, with descriptions of wide open spaces conflicting with the ominous atmosphere. Apparently his books have been responsible for introducing tourists to Sweden, particularly around Ystad.
Interpreted by Laurie Thompson, the English is almost flawless; any small flaws in the language do not take away from the understanding of the story in the slightest. Recommended to anyone who enjoys crime fiction. If you haven't read any books by Henning Mankell yet, this is an excellent place to start.
I have the hardback version of the book, which is available from Amazon for ₤14.99. It is published by The Harvill Press and is 336 pages long - relatively short for a Wallander novel. ISBN: 1843430983. The paperback version is apparently due to come out very soon and I would expect it to be about ₤6.99.